Towards a Politics of Text Encoding

  1. 1. Paul Caton

    Brown University, Centre for Computing in the Humanities - INKE Project, King's College London

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Increasingly important as a provider of scholarly resources, text
encoding is moving into the humanities mainstream [1]. I have argued
elsewhere that text encoding can and should play a central role in a
reformulated English department (Caton 2000); this paper argues the
corollary. Like any social practice, text encoding rests upon a set of
assumptions. Some of these, strongly rooted in an empiricist view of
textuality, have been articulated as theoretical statements (DeRose et
al. 1990; Renear 1997). Others remain operative but unspoken. The
history of the humanities and especially of literary studies over the
last three decades has repeatedly taught us that what is unsaid
because 'obvious' most needs interrogating. This paper offers one such
interrogation, examining what I believe to be one of the strongest
unspoken assumptions underpinning text encoding: its neutral,
apolitical nature. Critical perspectives from semiotics and
contemporary cultural theory help us see text encoding as a signifying
practice strongly implicated in a politically conservative humanist

Customarily, text encoding cloaks itself in pragmatism as an
instrumental process: to achieve aim X we use means Y under conditions
Z. The tendency then is to locate political concerns in everything but
the concept or mechanics of the practice itself [2]. In this view,
politicality inheres in the performative aspects of the process: in
the choice of content to encode and/or the hoped-for effect of the
encoding activity (X); in the design of the tag set (Y); or in the
institutional and material circumstances under which the encoding
takes place (Z). This isolates a 'core' or 'essential' practice
(placing tags in a text according to a set of formal syntactic and
structural rules) the formality of which appears to preclude the
possibility of a politics.

And there, it seems, humanities text encoding has left this
(non)issue, despite the fact that precisely such moments--moments when
the political (figured as subjective) becomes unthinkable because
displaced by the 'objective'--have for a long time been the subject of
searching analysis by practitioners of literary/cultural
theory. However, when we understand how much these analyses unsettle
the traditional humanist world view, we also understand why most
contemporary theory remains text encoding's unacknowledged Other. This
paper focuses on the materialist critique of signification and its
implications for text encoding.

I begin by situating text encoding in a traditional semiological
framework, discussing the relationship between tag and signifier,
content and signified, and considering markup as a metalanguage in
terms of the well-known formulation of Barthes (following Hjelmslev),
E R [ERC], where [ERC] represents an entire signifying system being
signified by E (Barthes 1968, 90). I then trace how two successive
critiques transform this early semiotic approach, beginning with
deconstruction. Coward and Ellis (1977) argue that the radical
potential of Saussure's original insight into the nature of
signification gets suppressed by mechanistic tendencies that emerge as
structuralism develops into a 'scientific' methodology. The thrust of
these tendencies is to treat language as a structural system that mediates
between a transcendent subject and already-constituted
objects. Deconstruction turns structuralism upon itself, emphasizing
the *productivity* of the signifier. Rather than seeing signification
in terms of a static structure (which happens when undue emphasis is
put on its synchronic nature), deconstruction sees it as a process
where "it is the play of difference of the signifying chain that
produces signifieds;" (23).

Pragmatists argue that the deconstructive view is so abstract it is
divorced from the reality of our lives. Zavarzadeh and Morton's
distinction between the *Actual* and the *Real* proves helpful here
(1991). The Actual refers to the physical existence of things; it is
the stone Doctor Johnson kicks to refute Bishop Berkeley. The
existence of the Actual is not in question. Beyond simply existing,
however, things also *mean* for us. It is at this level, where the
Actual becomes intelligible, that Zavarzadeh and Morton locate the
Real, and the Real is an effect of signification. Humanism, Zavarzadeh
and Morton argue, confuses the Actual and the Real, and do so under an
ideological imperative to think meaning inherent to physical objects
and hence 'natural,' 'timeless,' and 'True.' "Such an essentializing
closure which anchors meaning (knowledge) in the object politically
postulates the world 'as it is' as the world 'as it ought to be' and
thus obstructs the reconstitution of the real by any intervention"

While deconstruction, by locating meaning in the process of
signification, helps reveal the 'natural' to be political, "it, like
other modes of ludic theory, finally situates the signifying process
as a formalist program" (Zavarzadeh and Morton 90). The materialist
critique breaks from deconstruction on the ennabling conditions of the
social production of meaning. "In the ludic space of playfulness, the
social relations of production are posited not as historically
necessary but as subject to the laws of the alea: chance and
contingency" (194) Not surprisingly, the materialists take a more
determinist view: the state of social relations of production, which
follow an historically-determined logic of development, directly
affects the constitution of the Real. What kinds of meanings count as
Truth, what kind of subject-effect signification produces, what modes
of knowing gain authority, all ultimately have everything to do with
the dominant economic world-system.

We do not have to agree with this critique to appreciate the challenge
it presents. The uneasy relationship between the corporate world and
the humanities has been newly embodied in our own field with the
widespread adoption of structured encoding by businesses, which has
brought many of us closer to advanced capitalism in action than ever
before. For humanists the traditional ideological 'safe haven' from
the 'taint' of the corporate has been the moral superiority of
humanism's concern for Truth, its adherence to an authorized set of
protocols of reading and writing supposed to signify the disinterested
pursuit of knowledge. Text encoding has its own version of this. We
might consult on a DTD for a corporation, but our 'valuable' work is
to further the cause of the humanities (and, by extension, to better
society) by making available the culture's textual legacy. We show our
concern for Truth by admitting the interpretive nature of encoding but
resolutely limiting ourselves to encoding the structural 'essence' of
the text. We concentrate on representing texts objectively, 'as they
are,' and leave others to do with them what they will.

To finish as I began: text encoding has already started (re)producing
the culture's textual embodiment of itself and its history. We have in
our hands an ideological tool of some consequence. It seems to me
extremely important to realise that nothing we do is neutral, that
every time we unthinkingly reproduce the Real because we believe it to
be Actual it has political consequences which like grains of sand may
individually be unnoticeably small but in aggregate can change the

[1] By text encoding here I mean the use of the TEI Guidelines or some
similar markup scheme to represent texts digitally, principally for
the creation of textbases, digital libraries, etc. I do not refer to
the creation of hypertext, a field already much-theorized by Landow,
Joyce, Aarseth, Coyne, and many others.

[2] See, for example, the essays in Chernaik, Davies, and Deegan

Works cited

Caton, Paul. 2000. "Text Encoding and the New English Department."
Paper presented at Digital Resources for the Humanities 2000,
September 2000, University of Sheffield.

Chernaik, Warren, Caroline Davies, and Marilyn Deegan, eds. The
Politics of the Electronic Text. Oxford: Office for Humanities
Communication, 1993.

Coward, Rosalind, and John Ellis. 1977. *Language and Materialism:
Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject.* Boston,
London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

DeRose, S, and David Durand, Elli Mylonas, Allen Renear. 1990. What is
Text, Really? *Journal of Computing in Higher Education,* 1 (2): 3-26.

Renear, A. 1997. "Out of Praxis: Three (Meta)Theories of Textuality"
in *Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory.* Edited by
Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zavarzadeh, Mas'ud and Donald Morton. 1991. *Theory, (Post)Modernity,
Opposition: An "Other" Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.*
PostModern Positions, Vol. 5. Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC